Feb 7, 2023 - Science

Data from satellites is starting to spur climate action

Illustration of a magnifying glass magnifying part of blurring earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Data from space is being used to try to fight climate change by optimizing shipping lanes, adjusting rail schedules and pinpointing greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it matters: Satellite data has been used to monitor how human activities are changing Earth's climate. Now it's being used to attempt to alter those activities and take action against that change.

  • "Pixels are great but nobody really wants pixels except as a step to answering their questions about how the world is changing and how that should assess and inform their decisionmaking," Steven Brumby, CEO and co-founder of Impact Observatory, which uses AI to create maps from satellite data, tells Axios in an email.

What's happening: Several satellite companies are beginning to use their capabilities to guide on-the-ground actions that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions cuts.

  • UK-based satellite company Inmarsat, which provides telecommunications to the shipping and agriculture industries, is working with Brazilian railway operator Rumo to optimize train trips — and reduce fuel use.
  • Maritime shipping, which relies on heavy fuel oil, is another sector where satellites could help to reduce emissions by routing ships more efficiently and prevent communications-caused delays, says Inmarsat's CEO Rajeev Suri. The industry contributes 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Carbon capture, innovations in steel and cement production and other inventions are important for addressing climate change, Suri says. But using satellites is "potentially low-hanging fruit because these technologies are already available."

Other satellites are also tracking emissions of methane — a strong greenhouse gas — from landfills and oil and gas production.

  • "It's a needle in a haystack problem. There are literally millions of potential leak points all over the world," says Stéphane Germain, founder and CEO of GHGSat, which monitors methane emissions from its six satellites in orbit.
  • A satellite dedicated to honing in on carbon dioxide emissions is due to launch later this year.

Between the lines: Emissions data from satellites has been used by advocates to "name and shame" emitters into action, but some companies are taking a different tack.

  • GHGSat, for example, chooses to partner with companies and governments to try to address their emissions usage without shaming them publicly.
  • "Our single biggest success came through diplomatic channels working with three different ambassadors in one country to work with that government to decide to reduce some emissions," Germain says, declining to provide more details.
  • "That never would have happened if we'd gone and splashed our name all over the front of a newspaper somewhere."

Yes, but: The business models for many of the companies working to track climate change from space are still being developed as they find niches to complement and incorporate publicly available data.

What to watch: Satellites are just beginning to be talked about in settings like the UN climate conference COP as tools for monitoring and reducing emissions.

  • Companies also have to find ways to communicate what they can do with their technology to the public and potential customers, the Secure World Foundation's Krystal Azelton tells Axios.
  • The key question, she says: "Who is it going to be used by and how are they going to educate?"
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